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The bourgeoisie in the mirror of Bolsonaro

My colleague Jairo Nicolau In his recent and enlightening book “O Brasil dobrou à direita: uma radiografía da eleição de Bolsonaro em 2018” warns that the current president, before being a fascist, is actually a “popular right-wing leader” who should not be underestimated as such. It is therefore worth asking: when in the history of the Brazilian republic has the economic elite, those “at the top”, ever had at their disposal a popular and openly right-wing leadership at the head of the federal executive?

The myth of the third way

Is there really room for a “democratic center-right” candidacy? This question is especially relevant considering the fact that the only counterpoint to Bolsonaro on the horizon is former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. This would be leadership from the opposite direction of the political spectrum and not entirely reliable for the interests of the elite. Would the political polarization of the country thus be inevitable in 2022, and could it imply some form of institutional rupture?

The argument here is that the big banks, investment funds, and private groups will not be willing to easily give up Bolsonaro. The letters of the businessmen for democracy, including the one disavowed by the Federation of Industries of the State of São Paulo (FIESP), are not convincing and do not hide the total alignment of these owner sectors with the economic agenda carried out by former banker Paulo Guedes.

The bourgeoisie knows that these agendas depend not only on the costly support of the so-called “Centrão,” which are parties without specific a ideological orientation that approach the executive branch in exchange for privileges through clientelist networks, in Congress, but also on some degree of popular backing. That is, an acceptance, or at least the social resignation, of Bolsonaro’s leadership. He has already proven capable of rallying this with his violent and insidious anti-system rhetoric through social networks and performative acts.

Make no mistake, the Brazilian bourgeoisie reflects Bolsonaro’s contempt for democracy. On the authoritarian character of our bourgeoisie, the literature is abundant.

The great, if not the greatest Brazilian sociologist, Florestan Fernandes, already identified in his classic “The Bourgeois Revolution in Brazil” (1974), the autocratic character of the bourgeoisie in its quest to combine “internal unequal development and external imperialist domination”. An autocracy that would have been fully realized, via militarization and technocratization, during the “Military-Corporate Dictatorship” (1964-88). In Florestan’s words, “if ever there was a ‘bourgeois paradise’, that paradise exists in Brazil, at least after 1968”.

Would we be living in a new phase of the “bourgeois paradise” initiated with the 2016 Coup, which was led by then Vice President Michel Temer, an old political fox who now presents himself as the guarantor of Bolsonaro’s sudden democratic conversion?

The answer seems to be a resounding yes. Here, it’s important to consider his labor reform. It made outsourcing the norm and included: the modification of the spending ceiling that strangled public spending; the withdrawal of Petrobras as the sole operator of the pre-salt; the pension reform, already under Bolsonaro’s mandate, which severely limits the right to retirement; the autonomy of the Central Bank, followed by the creation of “voluntary remunerated deposits” for banks, reediting the overnight; the ongoing privatizations of Eletrobras, Correos and the state sanitation companies; and, also, the flexibilization, not to say deconstruction, of environmental policies.

Increasing polarization and the 2022 elections.

Bolsonaro’s advances and apparent reversals in his anti-democratic outbursts also signal that he projects, beyond a coup, to reach the 2022 elections with force, ensuring at least a second round. With only one year to go before the elections, the chances of an impeachment are increasingly remote, while the advance of vaccination and the decline of Covid-19 cases and deaths tend to favor an economic rebound next year.

In effect, the Bolsonarista strategy seems to be, on the one hand, seeking to expand its 20% of loyal voters – it is not by chance that the government is trying by all means to guarantee resources for “Auxilio Brasil.” On the other hand, it is simultaneously attempting to show itself to be trustworthy with respect to the cowardly and autocratic financial oligarchy.

It seems that this tends to be Bolsonaro’s plan A: to emerge victorious from a second round, preferably with Lula, betting on polarization. A new democratic rupture, like the one that occurred in 2016, would serve as plan B in case of defeat in the second round, in an openly conflictive environment.

The time for a “center” or “democratic right” candidacy is also running out; the space for it tends to close in the wake of political polarization, which makes an electorally viable “alternative” unlikely. Even if some sectors of those “from above” come closer to supporting Lula’s candidacy, the temptation of the elite to bury once and for all any prospect of conciliation with those “from below” must prevail.

The scenario in the next period, therefore, is one of growing polarization. The tilt of the political balance will also depend on the ability of the progressive camp to come out of the defensive, going beyond the position of “Bolsonaro out” and being able to unite forces around a convincing counterpoint to the current ultra-liberalism. This may also mean taking up the anti-system flag and pointing it less at the political class and more at its masters, the owners of the financial banks.

Otherwise, if the left and the center-left are not up to this challenge, it is always good to remember that in politics there are no empty spaces and the place of the “opposition” to Bolsonaro could, in this instance, shift to the so-called “democratic center-right”. It would be the first time, since the redemocratization, that a false polarization would take place. In this case, this would be far more to the liking of the bourgeoisie than of the farcical and infamous president.

Translated from Spanish by Alithia Kephalogianis


Politicial Scientist. Professor at the Federal Univ. of the State of Rio de Janeiro (UNIRIO) and the Pontifical Catholic Univ. of Rio de Janeiro. Coordinator of the Mais Democracia Institute. PhD in Political Science from IUPERJ (now IESP/UERJ).


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